First heat means everything in this year’s Little Brown Jug

by Brett Sturman

The 72nd edition of the Little Brown Jug drew only eight entries, which is the smallest number of horses entered for the race since 1980. There will still be a first heat but all horses will be guaranteed to return for the final heat, should their trainers elect to race them a second time.

Eliminations where little to no horses are eliminated are generally meaningless since everyone returns for a subsequent richer race, but there’s a twist in this case. Post positions for the final heat will be determined entirely by the official order of finish for all horses in the first heat. On the Delaware half-mile oval, where the inside posts are supremely advantageous, there is tremendous incentive to win the first heat, or at least to finish in as high a spot as possible.

What makes this logic easier said than done is the fact that the second heat is raced on the same afternoon as the first one. It’s not the case of an elimination one week where you can go all out to secure a favorable inside draw and then reload and come back next week. In the Jug this year, you either have to win or come very close to winning the first heat, but do so without expending too much energy. Granted this isn’t that different from any other year, but this year the winner of their first heat will be guaranteed the rail in the final heat.

An interesting observation is that because there is only a single preliminary heat, the purse of the first heat is very high relative of the purse to the final heat. The final heat goes for $401,472 but the first heat still goes for almost half that amount at $188,928. So unlike in many cases where the purse of the final may be 20 times more than the amount of the purse of the elimination, there is actually much more of a financial incentive in the Jug to do well in the first heat if you can, based on the purse being offered.

That said, most of the trainers sending out these eight horses in the Little Brown Jug are more concerned with the prestige of the winning the final heat of the Jug more so than the purses in either heat. If purses were an overriding concern for any of these horses, the trainers may have elected to race their horses elsewhere.

From a wagering standpoint – and I get that the Delaware County Fair is more than betting – can you really wager on the first heat? There’s an obvious incentive to win as discussed, but there is also an incentive for drivers to not use their horses to their maximum effort.

The overall question becomes, with a spot already guaranteed in the final heat, how hard do you want to push your horse in the first heat. Ideally a driver wants to get the rail for the final but at the same time at what cost should that come to?

Brian Sears drives first heat morning line favorite Downbytheseaside and as expected, Sears is keeping his cards close to his vest. Not to reveal his strategy in mind, Sears said, “I really can’t tell you what I’m thinking, because (of the importance of the decision). But it’s all things that you have to think about.”

Downbytheseaside has drawn post 5 for the first heat of the Little Brown Jug. It’s certainly a less than an ideal post at Delaware and is further compounded by the fact that chief rival Fear The Dragon has drawn inside of him in post 3.

Said Sears, “Obviously, I would have liked to have drawn better. But I’m just going to see how my horse is feeling behind the gate, and see how aggressive he’s feeling and take it from there. Hopefully he lets me know what he feels like doing.”

Beginning with a monstrous effort in the Millstein at Northfield last month, Downbytheseaside has been as good as he’s been all year.

“Seaside is a sharp horse right now,” said Sears. I have to say that Brian (Brown) has done a great job because this horse has had to deal with some issues. He’s been a little sharper at times than others; no question about it. But he’s had at least 10 days off since his last race so hopefully he’ll be sharp again.

“He’s maintained his form really well. This is the type of horse that’s kind of a speedball. He races aggressively and that’s the way you have to race these better horses that are considered heavy favorites in races. He’s held up well as the season has progressed. The season is so long for these 3-year-olds, when you look at where they started going back to the North America Cup and even before that in the sire stakes. It’s a grueling season, to be raced on your toes all year long.”

Sears knows that having the right horse is only part of the equation for success today. “To win the Jug, it’s kind of got to be your day. You have to have some things go right; that’s for sure.”

In terms of handicapping the Jug, let’s assume for all intents and purposes that the winner of the first heat will be the winner of the final heat due to the advantage that the rail horse will have.

Fear The Dragon lands a post edge but hasn’t raced in a month. He also lost a slugfest with a similar post advantage to Downbytheseaside when these two last met in August, so there are reasons to play against if one is so inclined.

Not to be outdone, Filibuster Hanover is peaking for Burke right now and could surprise, as well as giving early issues to #’s 3 and 5. This one nearly lost on the front in an exceptionally fast 1:48:2 mile at Philly two back and closed strongly last out in the Jug Preview at Scioto. He picks up Yannick Gingras also and could be a sneaky play.

This is a tough call because in this race the post position matters almost as much as the quality of the horse, but I think Downbytheseaside is good enough to overcome his draw. He’s the best horse at the moment and is my selection to win the 72nd edition of the Little Brown Jug.